Lowi, Theodore J.

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Lowi, Theodore J. 1931-


Theodore J. Lowi is known within the fields of political science, sociology, and law for his statement of interest-group liberalism, a theory of political power in the United States widely accepted (particularly in the 1970s and 1980s) as an alternative to the pluralist theory of political power advocated by Robert A. Dahl (b. 1915). In The End of Liberalism (1979) Lowi presumed that singlepower-elite theories of U.S. politics are generally incorrect, in that Lowi described political power as wielded by different elites in different policy areas. But his interpretation of this research finding was very different from the pluralist interpretation. Lowi argued that such fragmented power leads to the control of most domestic policy areas by special-interest coalitions of interest groups, administrators, and legislative committee members, who are unresponsive to control by legislative and executive leaders, or by the judiciary. Lowis use of the term liberalism in this theory does not refer to the political opinions of some Americans, but to the terms use in political philosophy, referring to those defining democracy according to some process of decision making, rather than to those referring to standards of justice in the substance of government action. Lowi argued that liberalism in the process sense had come to permeate the values of legislative, executive, and judicial decision makers in the United States, so that laws were written and interpreted without useful reference to clear standards of justice and administration. He argued that as a consequence, lower-level executive decision makers interpreted the practical meaning of legislation after a process of bargaining with organized interest groups, thereby forming a special-interest policymaking coalition specific to a particular area of public policy. To reform interest-group liberalism, Lowi advocated institutional changes to promote the statement of clear standards in legislation and administration of public policy, such as judicial prohibition of legislation lacking such clear standards.

In 1976 a survey of political scientists ranked Lowi as having made the most significant contribution to the discipline from 1970 to 1976 (Roettger 1978). During the 1970s Lowis interpretation of power and policymaking was not effectively challenged by other scholars. The power-elite theory of C. Wright Mills had been discredited within political science by the criticisms of the plural-ists, led by Robert A. Dahl (Mills 1956; Dahl 1961), although political scientists often apply a version of elite theory to foreign policy decisions. The more complex elitist theory of Thomas R. Dye (ranked third in the above survey) and L. Harmon Zeigler simply included Lowis policy-area elites as a part of their description of a national policymaking elite numbering in the thousands (1975, pp. 274276, 394). Faced with about twenty case studies of particular national policy areas tending to support Lowis theory, the pluralists did not attempt a general criticism of Lowis views. Instead, they directed their research at dealing with the question of control of the political agenda (Polsby 1980). Lacking much in the way of opposing argument, Lowis views about power and policymak-ing were preeminent for about a decade. However, research by a later generation of pluralists found that many areas of domestic policymaking actually show numerous interest groups in contention with one another, thereby precluding domination of a policy area by a single coalition (Walker 1991). These neopluralist critics agreed that the pattern described by Lowi can be found in some areas, known as policy niches.

The End of Liberalism is based on Lowis previous delineation of three types of public policies: distributive, regulatory, and redistributive. (Lowi added a fourth, government reform, somewhat later.) Distributive policies encompass the distribution of particular benefits, usually material ones such as government contracts, grants, and construction projects. As interest groups cooperate to divide up such goods, distributive policies tend to exhibit little conflict and are characterized by interest-group liberalism. Regulatory policies regard the passage and enforcement of legal regulations such as labor law, civil rights law, environmental rules, and so forth. Such policy areas often show the politics of pluralist conflict among interest groups, unless the regulations set unenforceable standards, in which case interest-group liberalism prevails. Redistributive policies take wealth from the rich and give to the poor, and are characterized by class politics, uncommon in the United States. Lowis contrasts among these three types of policies are now widely accepted by political scientists.

SEE ALSO Elite Theory; Lynd, Robert and Helen; Networks; Social Movements


Dahl, Robert A. 1961. Who Governs? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dye, Thomas R., and L. Harmon Zeigler. 1975. The Irony of Democracy. 3rd ed. North Scituate, MA: Duxbury.

Lowi, Theodore J. 1964. American Business, Public Policy, Case Studies and Political Theory. World Politics 16 (July): 677715.

Lowi, Theodore J. 1979. The End of Liberalism. Rev. ed. New York: Norton.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polsby, Nelson W. 1980. Community Power and Political Theory. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Roettger, Walter B. 1978. Strata and Stability: Reputations of American Political Scientists. PS 11: 612.

Walker, Jack L., Jr. 1991. Mobilizing Interest Groups in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Andrew McFarland